CIRCA:Shadow of the Valley Project


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Valley of the Shadow: Two Communities in the American Civil War, Virginia Center for Digital History, University of Virginia (

--ColetteLeung 01:34, 3 December 2010 (UTC)

September 17, 2010


Introduction to project and its significance

Valley of the Shadow Project.

The Valley of the Shadow Project is a digital archive, and one of the largest history websites available on the World Wide Web since 1993. This project provides primary sources such as newspapers, census data, church records, military records, maps, letters, diaries and images related to the coming, fighting and aftermath of the American Civil War for the people of two counties: the northern Augusta County in Virginia, and the Franklin County in Pennsylvania. These primary sources are presented in an interactive form that is accessible to a large audience; and as a digital archive, serves more as a library than as a single resource. There are also further resources available on the project website regarding teaching, digital articles, and history of the project and team.

The Valley Project has received a great deal of recognition, through press and awards. This extends also to the CD-ROM created in association with the project in 1994/1995. Some notable commendations the website has received are an article in the New York Times, the eLincoln Prize in 2001, and recognition from the American Historical Association as a teaching aid.

The Valley Project is also a very significant project, especially to humanists. This project developed over the course of many years, and as it developed, one can also trace the history of Humanities Computing. For example, institutes such as the Institute for Advanced Technology in Humanities or the Virginia Centre for Digital History came about because of this project. Further, it exemplifies the needs and struggles that humanists face in preserving information as technology upgrades. The Project also shows how information need not be solely presented as a book. Interactive mediums, such as CD-ROMs, and the archive itself are not only accessible to an incredibly large general audience, but provide new ways of searching for information, teaching it, and using it. An excellent example of this is the interface of the project, a layout of an archive, that was not only a familiar setting for academics, but allowed easy browsing of time periods and categorical information. The Valley Project is thus a forerunner in this realm of digitization, and serves as a template for other projects such as “Women and Social Movements in the United States” and the “Abraham Lincoln Historical Digitization Project.” Edward Ayers proposes that digital publication may become the way of the future as well, and cowrote a digital article with Will Thomas III, 'The Differences Slavery Made: A Close Analysis of Two American Communities.'

It is also important to recognize some of the difficulties presented by the Valley Archive. Ayers has suggested as late as 2004 that not enough digital projects have taken off, and it is possible that academia will be slow or neglect to recognize the use of technology as both a teaching resource and a medium of conveying information. (Ayers 2004) The Valley Archive itself is also no longer updated by its original creators, which may in time date the interface and project itself.

Audience and Purpose

The original idea behind the Valley Project was to create a “research box” that was available to a students to use who could not access these materials easily. It would allow them to perform research at the same level as academics. However, the scope of the audience this project targeted grew as the project did over the sixteen years it developed. The Valley Project seeks now to reach those attending high schools, colleges, and research universities, as well as teachers, researchers, genealogists, librarians, and anyone with an interest in the Civil War. 1 The Project seeks also to maintain this accessibility of academic materials, and preserve the information, especially as technologies evolve.


Since the Valley Project developed over an extended time period, a large number of technologies were involved. Originally, the Project was conceived of as a book. However, it quickly, turned to computers within a couple of years, as it would allow for easier pattern recognition between the two counties. IBM who signed on with the project would donate workstations, a server and a technical advisor. With this advent, files were converted into computer files, using SGML (Standard General Markup Language.) That same year, Mosaic, a browser software, was introduced as a tool for viewing the World Wide Web and the project converted to HTML (Hyper Text Markup Language), a subset of SGML. Modems ran the internet at that time, and they were a significant technology. Images, including maps, were scanned, as well as search tools developed. However, the internet was slow to load these images, and so a CD-ROM was developed, which allowed a multimedia environment to present history.

It is also important to recognize technologies such as the phone, which were heavily used in the mid-nineties by the public to contribute information to the project. In the late nineties, the layout of the website was reformatted to be a floor plan similar to that of the Jeffersonian, allowing the recognizable form of an archive to organize digital data. Technology upgraded yet again to XML, allowing full text searching capabilities in the early 2000s. Other programs were being used as well to present and archive materials, such as GIS (Geographic Information Systems technology), which essentially produced detailed maps and images of the county such as were not available before.

As the project neared completion in 2007, files were updated to current technical standards for digital preservation. The Valley databases and search engines were re-engineered as a Lucene index, a retrieval system, with Apache Solr and Cocoon, powerful softwares which allow fulltext searching,. Finally, in 2009, the entire website was consolidated from three serves to a single project, which exists in the University of Virginia Library production web environment.

History of Project

Floor plan of the digital archive, and common symbol of the Valley Project

The Valley of the Shadows Archive was originally conceived as a book in 1991 by a history professor at the University of Virginia, Edward Ayers. He envisioned a book that would compare both one side of the North and one side of the South in the American Civil War. As information was gathered, it was apparent that August County and Franklin County were best suited for the research. However, Ayers had long been involved with computers, and in 1993, it occurred to him that computers might be a useful tool in the collection of his materials. That same year, the project was pitched to IBM for support, on the basis that the collected documents would serve as an archive that would allow students without these kinds of primary sources to conduct the same kind of research as academics. Support was achieved, and the project began the task of converting files into computer readable material.

In 1993, a graduate student named Anne Rubin also joined the team. She took the lead in converting newspapers into SGML readable files, as well as supervising other students who were working on the project. This same year, Mosaic was introduced by Thornton Staples, the associate director of the Institute for Advanced Technology in the Humanities (IATH) at the University – a centre which developed out of this project. Using Mosaic, the project could be put on the world wide web, where the archive could be shared even as it was collected. .

Further support for the Valley Project came from the Woodrow Wilson Birthplace and Museum, which developed a terminal in their museum off the Project, known as the Augusta Archive. By 1994, the project was becoming more refined as more material was added. To ease access, a CD-ROM of the project was created with Steve Forman at WW Norton, allowing for an interactive multimedia experience. By 1996, the possibility of ‘Teaching with Technology’ was recognized at the National Endowment of the Humanities, and the project received further funding. That same year, William G. Thomas III took over as project leader. Materials continued to be amassed, from the public as well.

Around this time, a significant development regarding the organization of the Project occurred. Thomas and a visiting graduate student named Michael Mullins proposed a floor plan that looked like an “archive” to organize the Project information be used, changing the format from long sprawling text and images to an aesthetic and user-friendly interface. This floor plan, designed by Thomas Jefferson, became a very recognizable symbol associated with the Valley Project. In 2002, Andrew Toget became project manager, and guided the Valley Archive to completion. Files were updated to the most current technical standards for digital preservation. By 2007, the project was declared finished, and became part of the University of Virginia Library’s permanent digital collection.

Full information on team members associated with the Valley Project can be read here.




Ayers, Edward L. “Doing Scholarship on the Web: Ten Years of Triumphs – and a Disappointment.” Journal of Scholarly Publishing 35.3(2004).: n. pag. Web12 Sept. 2010.


Thomas, William G. “ ‘Fax Me Everything You Have on the Civil War!’ A Look at Web Audiences in the Valley of the Shadow Project.” Perspectives 37.2(1999).:n.pag. Web 12 Sept. 2010.


Gregory, Ian N., Karen K. Kemp, and Ruth Mostern. “Geographical Information and Historical Research: Current Progress and Future Directions.” History & Computing 1(2001):n.pag. Web 12 Sept. 2010.

Other Projects of Interest

D-Lib Magazine. “Lincoln/Net: Abraham Lincoln Historical Digitization Project.” D-Lib Magazine 13.1/2(2007): n. pag. Web 12 Sept. 2010.

Sklar, Kathryn Kish, and Thomas Dublin. “Keepiong up with the Web 1997 – 2008: Women and Social Movements in the United States.” Perspectives on History (2009): n. pag. Web 12 Sept. 2010.

Other References of Interest

Cabot, Raymond H. “Teaching, Technology, and History: Reaching the Past from the Modern World.” Columbia University (1998): n. pag. Web 12 Sept. 2010.

Clark, Frances M. “Mining the Treasures of the Valley of the Shadow.” Perspectives 40.5(2002): n. pag. Web 12 Sept. 2010.

Marcum, Deanna and Gerald George. “E-Scholarship: Is It Something Truly New and Different?” Educause Review 39.1(2004): n. pag. Web 12 Sept. 2010.

McMichael, Andrew. “The Historian, the Internet, and the Web: A Reassessement.” Perspectives 36.2 (1998): n. pag. Web 12 Sept. 2010.

Michael, Andrew, Roy Rosenzweig and Michael O’Malley. “Historians and the Web: A Beginner’s Guide.” Perspectives 34.1(1996): n. pag. Web 12 Sept. 2010.

Minner, Martin V. “Conference on History Journals and the Electronic Future.” Perspectives 36.2(1998): n. pag. Web 12 Sept. 2010.

Reiff, Janice L. “Riding the ‘Wave of the Present.’” Perspectives 36.(1998): n. pag. Web 12 Sept. 2010.

Seefeldt, Douglas and William G. Thomas. “What is Digital History? A Look at Some Exemplar Projects.” Perspective on History (2009): n. pag. Web 12 Sept. 2010.

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